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Gearing up to make Bishop's Stortford more cycle friendly

One of the biggest questions to come out of the Bishop's Stortford Community Climate Gathering last November was: how can we make cycling a safe, viable and fun way of getting around our town?

Cycling should be easy here. It’s a compact town and everything is in easy reach (as long as you know how to use your gears) and yet most of us prefer to hop in the car. Why? The answer is simple: safety. Just about everyone I talk to tells me they won’t cycle in Stortford because the roads aren’t safe.

It’s certainly true that some roads, at some times of day, would be daunting to even a seasoned cyclist. But it’s also true that, if you time it right, you can sometimes find the roads clear. Once my kids started school, I dusted off my bike and never looked back. I can whizz around town far faster than in the car, not having to worry about (or pay for) parking. I love being able to hop off my bike and say hi to people and I feel like a kid again. I wonder how much of our fear is well-founded and how much is a problem of perception?

One thing’s for sure: we are not alone in feeling scared. Survey after survey shows that more than 60% of UK adults believe the roads are too dangerous to cycle on. That number is higher among women and increases with age.

And yet we have a town centre increasingly choked with traffic, diminishing air quality and a looming obesity crisis. Plus we know that carbon emissions from cars are a major contributor to climate change. The need to get more of us cycling (and walking) has never been greater.

This is the mission of Velo_Voice, a new cycling lobby group and a spin-off of the Bishop’s Stortford Climate Group. Velo aims to get people on their bikes through a two-pronged strategy of pushing for more cycle lanes and creating positive cycling experiences for people.

Admittedly, Stortford doesn’t really lend itself to cycle lanes, with its narrow streets and even narrower pavements. Despite that, a huge amount of work has been done behind the scenes to lay the groundwork.

In 2017, the town council commissioned Sustrans, the walking, wheeling and cycling charity and custodian of the National Cycle Network, to look into options for increasing walking and cycling in the town.

The detailed 100+-page strategy envisions a flagship north-south route running along the River Stort, outer and inner ‘green rings’ linking up green spaces and spokes running into town from the green rings, connecting them to the centre and the station.

The scoping work for some priority routes has been done. The town council has a sizeable pot of capital funding for community schemes, some of which could be deployed to support walking and cycling routes. Moving this forward also depends on support from Herts County Council and, in some cases, East Herts Council. Progress is happening, but, for whatever reason, remains painfully slow. If we wait for cycle lanes to solve our problem, we will be waiting a very long time.

Which brings us to creating positive cycling experiences for people now, to build confidence and challenge the perception the roads are too dangerous.

One great initiative planned for this spring is the launch of Breeze Rides – free, women-only bike rides for all abilities, led by local women.

Sponsored by HSBC, Breeze rides happen all over the UK and are coming to Castle Park. Velo Voice and the Climate Group also have plans for free cycling events and activities over the summer – watch this space!

The Highway Code's new road hierarchy (54744298)
The Highway Code's new road hierarchy (54744298)

Cyclists should also be encouraged by changes to the Highway Code which came into force at the end of January, designed to improve the safety of pedestrians and cyclists.

There is a new ‘hierarchy of road users’ meaning that those in charge of vehicles which could cause the most harm have the most responsibility to take care. Put simply, this means the driver of a lorry turning at a junction has more responsibility than a cyclist, who in turn has more responsibility than a child crossing the road.

Drivers should now leave at least 1.5 metres width when overtaking a cyclist or, if that’s not possible, wait behind until it is safe to overtake. The code also advises cyclists to leave a gap of 50cm between themselves and the kerb and to cycle in the middle of the lane when approaching junctions and on narrow roads.

At a junction, someone going straight ahead now has priority over someone who wants to turn. This applies to everyone – cars and bikes wanting to turn left must give way to other cyclists and pedestrians going straight on. Two-thirds of all road accidents happen at junctions so this simple change, which brings us into line with most other European countries, could have a big impact.

The code also introduces the Dutch Reach, where you open a car door with the opposite hand. Using your left hand to open the right-hand driver’s door makes you turn your head to look over your shoulder before opening the door, reducing the risk of an accident.

I’ve been experimenting with these changes and I’ve found it transforms my relationship to the road and other road users. Cycling further away from the kerb, I’m no longer having to negotiate drains and people stepping out in front of me and I feel much more confident, able to see and be seen. The onus is now on all of us to practise these new, common sense rules and help to gradually shift the culture on our roads.

It feels like we are at the start of a long journey to achieve some sort of balance between car drivers and other road users. Infrastructure must be part of this so let’s continue to press for cycle lanes – it would be great (and entirely feasible) to see some confirmed plans this year, with work started and some routes completed in 2023.

Perhaps we will even get the joined-up network of cycleways described in the Hertfordshire Transport Strategy by the next county council elections in 2025. Here’s hoping. But in the meantime, I’ll keep cycling and hope to see lots more of you out on your bikes in the coming months.

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